Friday, March 9, 2007

The Numbers Game

755 home runs; 20 strikeouts; 3,000 hits; .406 average; 100 stolen bases; 56 game hitting streak.

Numbers have been a part of baseball as far back as anyone can remember. From the moment when Babe Ruth crossed the then-mythical 30 home run barrier, through Jose Canseco’s opening of the 40-40 club and the all-around numbers put up by Alex Rodriguez, baseball has always been a sport consumed with numbers. Even more than other sports, we use the numbers to judge what we think of a player. For years, a guy who hit .300 with 25 home runs was an all-star; someone with 20 wins, a Cy Young Award contender. If you broke the 3,000 hit barrier, or went past 500 home runs or 300 wins, you had a plaque waiting for you in Cooperstown. Sportswriters and casual fans alike flocked to the box scores to see how players played, how their numbers stacked up, and made judgments accordingly. Eventually, new numbers (like saves) gained importance, and people adjusted their expectations.

Recently, these numbers have been expanded upon by a number of authorities. Bill James and his progeny opened the door in the 80’s, joined by a group of baseball lovers who saw that there were more numbers that could be a window to greatness. Eventually, this group has expanded statistical analysis far beyond what sportswriters like Damon Runyon could have imagined. Now we have VORP, WARP, FRAA, and a number of other categories where we can measure athletes’ performance. It has allowed us to re-evaluate the greats and current stars; as a result, we can see just how valuable some players (Joe Morgan for example) were, and discover some overlooked players (Bobby Grich and Ron Santo) who deserve quite a bit more praise.

Recently, at least one writer and one prominent baseball writer have criticized this new analysis. Basically, their argument comes down to one premise: this analysis, done by people behind a computer who don’t even watch the games, has taken the fun out of watching baseball. If you listen to people like Joe Morgan, you would even get the feeling that this analysis is bad for baseball, and that this is just a bunch of nerds with too much time on their hands.

The unfortunate thing is, if these people actually read these sites that they so despise, they would get a much different feeling. Anyone who has read Joe Sheehan, Nate Silver, Rob Neyer, or any of their colleagues cannot help but walk away knowing that these are people who love baseball. This is the new generation of baseball writers, a generation that loves the game, but recognizes the flaws in statistical analysis. Part of it is, of course, ignorance; one ESPN analyst who criticized Moneyball freely admits he never read the book, and the baseball writer mentioned earlier noted that he does not read the Baseball Prospectus emails he receives.

If these people actually read the sites and the books though, one would guess they would have a far different opinion of these new-age baseball writers. Opening up a Bill James volume, one immediately notices that his list of 100 greatest players doesn’t stray too much from everyone else’s lists (except that he includes Negro Leaguers). These aren’t people who are out in left field (no pun intended), but they’ve simply refined current methods.

Will this new group of writers be accepted quickly, their methods understood by the current set of writers? Next year will be a good test; Tim Raines, a Hall of Famer by current statistical analysis, comes up for election in 2008. Whether he passes muster with the HOF voters will go a long way with seeing just how flexible this group can be going forward.

I would like to be optimistic. After all, I’m a convert myself, and I figure if a liberal arts type like me can see the light, anyone can. All we can do is hope, and get ready for another great season.

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